The date August 15, 2014 marked a huge turning point in Gregg Brafford’s life. After nearly 40 years in the LGBTQ bar business, Brafford thought his life was coming to an end.
An unknown assailant attacked him, pumping him with four bullets after an attempted robbery. The attacker left Brafford for dead and fled the scene, while his intended victim was left severely injured, lying on the ground and contemplating the lifetime he had experienced.
Brafford began his career as a bartender, and then later on became a manager and co-owner of the long gone and rough and tumble Oleen’s.
These days it’s one of those blended Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin Robbins dual purpose restaurants located on South Boulevard between Dilworth and Southend. It was once a dimly lit retreat for the city’s queer community, seemingly still in its infancy, but already tough as nails.
If you visit the spot now, the building remains the same, but windows have been unbricked and everything is awash in light. Still, if you glance towards the windows that front South Boulevard, it’s not hard to picture where a small stage and dance floor used to be, drag queens would lip sync for tips and same sex couples would dance to the popular disco music of the day. Now where donuts and ice cream is served marks the same spot where bartenders once sold drinks. It may look drastically different, but the ghosts of the past are still there.
Years ago it was a popular spot for mostly blue collar gay men, tough butch lesbians and gun-totin’ drag queens. There was always plenty of fun to be had, but it was just a tough crowd you needed to be prepared for.
In the years that followed Brafford would become owner and manager of The New Brass Rail on Wilkinson Boulevard. Previously a working class and western themed hole-in-the-wall bar serving a straight clientele, Brafford took over from the earlier owners who had attempted to make it into a gay bar, albeit unsuccessfully.
With the years of expertise he had gleaned from working with the hearty crowd at Oleens, he created a similar rough and tumble masculine environment, minus the undertone of potential violence.
The New Brass Rail became popular with the city’s levi/leather crowd, which brought together gay men from multiple aspects of culture and society. Individuals of different races and economic levels mingled without judgment.
While there were many in the LGBTQ community that weren’t comfortable frequenting the bar because of its location – then the city’s high crime rate Westside – and those who weren’t comfortable with the predominant mixture of leather men and older men, the bar was a success with Brafford at the helm for nearly a quarter of a century.
In the years to come, he managed and co-owned the East Charlotte bar Central Station and another west side bar, The Woodshed, which is still in operation today with a new owner.
David Aaron Moore: I understand you’re a rarity in the Queen City?
Gregg Brafford: Huh? (laughs) Oh! Yeah. I’m a native. I was born here. At Mercy Hospital in 1956.
DAM: What was it like for you growing up here in Charlotte?
GB: We lived in North Charlotte. I remember living in the Morningside apartments for a while and then growing up mostly in Mint Hill. I went to Independence High School.
DAM: What prompted you to put together the collection of non-fiction short stories “It Happened in Charlotte: the Gay History of Charlotte?”
GB: The experiences I had. There were so many and I’ve had such a full life. So many things that happened in my life and so many stories that were passed down to me I felt needed to be told. After I survived the shooting I started to think about the life I had lived. I had been a part of Charlotte’s gay community for 40 years and I had known almost everybody who was an important part of the history of the city’s community, at least since the 1970s. Over the years I had heard a lot of people tell me they were going to write about the history of Charlotte’s gay community, but nobody ever did. I’m not getting any younger and I wanted to have what I knew out there before it was too late.
DAM: I read about it in your book and remember when you were shot on August 15, 2014. I lived not too far from The Woodshed at that time so I went pretty regularly and a lot of the clients were talking about what they thought had happened. Did you know the person who shot you?
GB: No. I didn’t. But he had some family who knew me, and that was what lead to it happening. It was a robbery attempt. His name was Robert Miller, Jr. He was later killed by the police for something else completely unrelated before he could ever go to trial for shooting me. I was shot four times and I thought that was going to be it for me.
DAM: Tell me about your experiences in the gay bar business. What was your first experience in the industry?
GB: I started out as a bartender at Oleens in 1984. I never bartended in my life! There was a clientele that I would say was split about 60/40 between men and women. I had been going there as a customer since 1976 so I knew most of them already. That helped and made it a lot easier at first. Later I became the manager and eventually a co-owner. Oleens was a wild place back in those days. When it was originally built in the 1920s it was an A&P grocery store. But by the time it became Oleens there was everything going on. Lots of the drag queens also worked as prostitutes and sometimes guys would come by, straight guys, and they figured even if the person they were dealing with was really a man if they were dressed as a woman it didn’t matter and that meant they weren’t gay (laughs).
DAM: What was it like when the AIDS epidemic hit Charlotte?
GB: Not good. People didn’t know they were sick. The first to go died of pneumonia. It was usually the second bout of pneumonia that killed them. Back then it was a death sentence. People were literally dropping like flies and it wasn’t unusual to go to two funerals in a day. We lost over 20 employees and I lost hundreds of friends.
DAM: How do you think you survived?
GB: I’ve talked about that a lot of times with so many people. Luck? I don’t really know because I had a lot of sex, especially before we knew there was a thing like AIDS. We [the community] had a golden era, almost 20 years, where we could live and enjoy our lives how we wanted to, then it felt like AIDS took all of that away. My guess would be that I’m one of those rare ones that has some kind of immunity, because I’ve never tested positive or gotten sick.
DAM: Did you ever expect that you would live to see the achievements the LGBTQ community has accomplished today?
(Laughs) No, absolutely not. The thought of same-sex marriage never crossed my mind. Not in my wildest imagination did I contemplate it, even when I was young. It’s pretty damn incredible.
DAM: I know you sold the Woodshed. What’s going on in your life today? How’s your health after surviving being shot four times?
GB: well, under the circumstances I’m doing good. I’m living my life enjoying it to the best of my ability and keeping busy. When I was shot some of the bullets were left in me. That led to some blood clots and eventually I had a stroke so I’m in a wheelchair, but I have a good life.
DAM: How do you feel about the changes you’ve seen in life for the LGBTQ community?
GB: it’s mostly good. I think people now want us to be their friends and not just their queer friends. That’s important but I think the fact that so many gay bars have closed means a big loss to our culture. On the other hand gay people can go and do whatever they want everywhere now. People are more accepting. It just seems as though we have lost an important part of our culture with so many of the clubs that catered specifically to the gay and lesbian crowd closing down. About 50 percent of the clubs in this country have closed. Now there are only about 1,500 bars and clubs left across the country. And it’s not just that we lost the gay bars, it’s that we lost our safe spaces and the places we could go to be ourselves and be with our own community. It feels like our culture is disappearing.
DAM: Young gay people today are very politically educated. And they seem to be a lot more involved with the world around them. Are there any particular thoughts or words of advice you have to share with them?
GB: It’s important to know how you got where you are and how that was accomplished. There were a lot of people that came before that laid the groundwork for what is happening today. Not just my generation, but the people that came before during Stonewall. We all have a lot to be thankful for. I think the most important thing I can say to them is learn to be happy. Everything is going to be all right and always be as true to yourself as you can possibly be.